A Regional Vision for KCATA

April 21, 2014
Despite built-in barriers, KCATA has made improvements that has grown the system and they are looking to provide the regional vision.

“Everything’s smooth on the highways and byways; keep up the good work,” is a typical morning traffic report in Kansas City, Mo., said Kansas City Area Transportation Authority General Manager Mark Huffer. If you’re in your car, that’s great news. If you’re running the local transit, there isn’t a pressing need by a lot of people to really grow the system.

“Kansas City is a town that was built for cars,” Huffer said. “We don’t have significant congestion, it’s not expensive to park downtown and we don’t have broad expectations from community leaders that transit has to be one of our biggest priorities going forward.

“People recognize the importance of it but I think if you did an overall poll, it would not poll as critical as a service or need as some other things and it won’t poll as high as many other metropolitan regions.”

Cynthia Baker, director of marketing, said, “We brad as a city of having more freeway miles per capita than any other metropolitan area.” She added, “We brag about that and that you can get just about anywhere in the metro area in 20-25 minutes. Even in rush hour.”

A lack of congestion may be a challenge, but KCATA continues to grow as the city evolves and demographics shift. For anyone that hasn’t been to Kansas City in the last 10 years or so, Huffer said they would be in for a pleasant surprise with the number of cultural amenities, quality of restaurants and arts, and a great cost of living.

In terms of the agency, Huffer said they are an innovative mid-sized agency that has done a lot on a very limited budget.  The only dedicated source of funding comes from Kansas City, Mo. “In most urban regions, funding is more regionally based,” said Huffer. “While we serve nine other communities, they fund that through general revenue funds so every year we go to their city council and essentially negotiate the amount of service that they can afford for the following year.

“That has resulted in us probably being a smaller system than you would expect in a metropolitan region this size.”

The jobs and retail have moved further from the urban core and it’s become more of a challenge to meet the regional travel needs. This has also led one of the strategic priorities of the board of commissioners to expand the overall reach as an authority on a regional basis.

“In large areas it’s not uncommon to have multiple providers. A little bit uncommon to see three or four in a metropolitan area of our size,” explained Huffer. “But that’s how it’s evolved here and we need to make sure we coordinate it well enough  that you don’t feel that you have to make three calls to travel between systems.” He added, “That’s a really big effort.”

He said Board Chairman, Robbie Makinen, director of Intergovernmental Operations Economic Development for Jackson County, has been the visionary of this seamless regionalism.

“What we’re trying to do at the ATA is to try to reinvent ourselves,” Makinen said. “The way the board and I look at this is we want the ATA to be a tool in the toolbox for the region.

“We’ve done a really good job of running bus service in this region so what we’re talking about now is taking that one step forward and developing a transit authority that is a multi-modal transit authority.”

He explained that there is more that KCATA can do, other than just providing bus service. Whether it’s help with planning, contract management, coordination with the Federal Transit Administration, Makinen said it is very good at that and to be able to offer those tools to the region is not only a very good thing, but where the authority needs to go.

“The ATA doesn’t necessarily have to operate everything,” said Makinen, “but we will be willing to help you be successful.”

They’ve recently started a regional coordinating council and it goes through the Mid-America Regional Council, the regional planning organization for Greater Kansas City. It was designed to put different stakeholders around the table that can make decisions, dive in and make a difference right away.

Some of the issues brought up, Makinen said, are a regional fare structure and senior mobility. The group of about 20 started meeting last fall and they meet once a month while the staff of those jurisdictions meet in between that time to help put information together.

“It has brought transit to a much higher level of public discussion and public discourse because these are the community leaders and they’re setting directions and policy,” said Huffer. He also said, “We’re the first to say we aren’t as big or as well capitalized as we would like to see in a metropolitan area of our size but with the funding available to us, I think we’ve done some very unique, very innovative things.

“Just because you have limited finances doesn’t mean that you can’t be innovative and creative  and I think that’s the message …”

A Future Plan

One of the major planning efforts over the last 5 years was a comprehensive service analysis. They reviewed every route within the system for efficiency, ridership and cost per passenger. They looked at route that were serving areas where the population had declined and areas of growth that didn’t have sufficient service.

About 2 years was spent on the CSA and in 2012 KCATA began implementing it. The last phase of implementation was in July of 2013. Huffer said, “We were able to schedule more efficiently.” He continued, “We think that we made some really good changes to the system overall.”

Max bus rapid transit service provides faster more frequent service. There is a Max Main Street line, which opened in 2005 and the Max Troost line, which opened in 2011.  KCATA is in the early stages of planning a third corridor along Prospect Avenue which could open in 2016. “One of the things we want to look at as we do our planning is building on the successes of the other two routes,” Huffer said.

They’re looking at off-board fare mechanisms and ridership has increased so much that they are facing capacity issues so this may be a time they consider introducing articulated buses.

One of the keys to their success has been keeping it cost effective, Huffer said. “We have limited funding options. We go after the smaller programs and we built our BRT routes pretty quickly and we want to continue to follow that.”

On Main Street, ridership has probably doubled where it was pre-Max. Troost Avenue, which has always been their busiest line, is up 50 percent. There’s also been economic development along the lines. “It hasn’t spun off the development that you’d see with light rail,” said Huffer, “and I think certainly what we’re already starting to see with a streetcar that’s not even open, but there are a number of buildings and apartments renovated along the line that advertise in the paper, ‘Adjacent to Main Street Max.’

“They never used to say, ‘Adjacent to bus route 56.’” Huffer emphasized, “We’ve seen some very positive developments outside of just ridership increases.”

KCATA’s Max service has the elements of more expansive BRT projects Huffer explained. It has the unique identity in terms of the marketing and branding of the vehicles and stations. The stations are more substantial, well-lit and have real-time sign information. There are dedicated lanes during certain times, not 24/7. There is also traffic signal priority and all of the stops are far side so that the vehicle gets through the intersection, can get boarded and go on instead of stopping and catching a red light.

There are two blocks downtown that are contraflow for Main Street Max and Troost has some dedicated lanes downtown because there are dedicated bus lanes downtown.

“If we ever really were really going to do BRT in a more complete manner, a more robust manner, the one thing that we really want to push for is more and a greater degree of lane exclusivity,” said Huffer. “Now the good thing is in Kansas City, we are not faced with the congestion that many of the larger systems have. So limited lane exclusivity is not a detriment to overall speed.” He added, “We’ve got it in the corridors that we need it, in the sections of the those corridors.”

As important as the economic development, Huffer and Baker talk about the perception change that BRT has created. There are three pieces of public art on the Troost Max line. Troost has been a racial dividing line in the community and it’s been difficult to get people to go to Troost. “Just the fact that these stations are lit, they look security, they’ve got very interesting pieces of art … it’s given that much more sense of place.

“They don’t look like bus stops,” said Huffer. “They look like places and that alone has made a big difference of how they see that community and what they think of transit.”

Other transit growth is with the streetcar project, which is owned by the city of Kansas City. The city has worked with FTA to be the grant recipient of some Surface Transportation Program funds and a TIGER grant. KCATA has been serving as a technical advisor to the city and the streetcar authority, which will manage the process.

The initial line is two miles, from River Market on the north end to Union Station on the south end. It’s being funded by a transportation development district that assessed additional taxes on the businesses and property owners that are within a 3/4 mile on either side of the streetcar line.

“They voted on the tax themselves,” said Huffer. “”Use that money as matching to some federal funds and there is an authority comprised of residents and business owners of that TDD that will be making decisions … for the city on operating and development the costs, how much service it can provide …

“One of the new elements in MAP-21 was the program of integrated projects,” Huffer said. “The FTA’s now permitting regions to develop more than one corridor project at a time.” And with that, he said they are working with the city on the next phase of streetcar development.

They’re working on an integrated program of projects that include three streetcar line extensions all connecting to the existing one and another BRT Max route on Prospect Avenue. The streetcar extensions are all in the 2- to 4-mile range and the Max extension would be a 7- to 9-mile line.

A Higher Profile

KCATA started its Rosa Parks Spirit Awards last year. The event was held in June at the Jazz Museum. There were four awards: Hall of Fame Award, Community Partner Award, Good Neighbor Award and Heritage Award.

Baker said the Heritage Award was presented to a former bus driver, one of the first five black bus drivers in Kansas City and the only one still living. 

The Good Neighbor Award went to the Truman Medical Center, which had approached KCATA  about a partnership. The medical center has taken on obesity and the food desert issue and worked with KCATA to retrofit a bus into a fresh produce market that goes around town providing healthy food.

“We did all the work on it,” Baker said. “And they have it on a regular schedule that goes out to the community to sell fresh fruit and produce.” Huffer elaborated, “We took a 14-year-old bus and completely gutted it … took out all the seats and did shelves for all the produce and built a counter and put in refrigeration.”

Truman Medical Center operate the vehicle and KCATA is under contract to maintain the bus for them.

The Community Partner Award went to the University of Kansas City for the Upass program and the Hall of Fame Award went to the former general manager who is now a city council person.

“Our criteria is they have to be involved with community service with a tie in to transit,” said Huffer. “It was a very well done event and an opportunity to recognize and thank people who have contributed to transit in the community.” He said it also provides an opportunity to raise the profile of KCATA to people that may not otherwise be connected to the authority.

The Industry Comes to Kansas City

The American Public Transportation Association Bus Roadeo will be held at the Kemper Arena, about a 5-mile bus ride from the hotel. Huffer explained that was the stockyards but the flood of ’53 basically killed the stockyard business in Kansas City and now it’s an area of town that has been trying to redevelop since. “It’s starting to make some progress,” he said. “A lot of artists are moving down there in some of the old brick buildings.”

Baker said the technical tours offered to attendees of the Bus & Paratransit Conference will be to see the facilities, including the brand new CNG fueling station, the training facilities, the training simulator area, dispatch and maintenance. Another tour will be along the BRT routes and another is to the transit centers they have around the region.

The system is radial in nature but so everyone doesn’t have to come from the suburbs to downtown to go back out, there are a half-dozen major transfer points around the community and almost all of them have very nice physical assets in terms of the transit center, explained Huffer. Some have public restrooms, some have radiant heat, one has an enclosed, environmentally controlled space.  They’re all lit with real-time signs to make a transfer convenient and secure.

When talking about what Bus Conference attendees can expect to see, Baker and Huffer also talked about staff. When talking about planning for events, they also talked about responding to unexpected events, such as the two blizzards last year. Huffer said, “For the first time anyone here can remember, we actually suspended service.

“For us to do that last year was a real anomaly. “ He continued, “We had operators that called; we knew we had operators that couldn’t make it, but we had others that said, ‘I know you’re going to have high absenteeism, that’s my day off, do you need me to come in?’

“We said absolutely.” They brought in 40 cots and blankets, they brought in some food, and people spent the night.

“There’s just a good sense of camaraderie, I think, that we recognize how important the service is and we respond quickly,” said Huffer. “I think people will see that in May as well.”